Keeping Awake: Stewardship and Thankfulness

Speaker: Caleb Schrock-Hurst

Main Bible Passage: Matthew 25:14-30; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

From worship on 2023/11/19

Here we are again with me preaching on a somewhat tough parable from Matthew! So, sorry if we hit some repetitive notes — perhaps if I was a better steward, like the first servant in this story, maybe I would have planned this series a bit better.

Also, as you may be figuring out, I love to try to connect multiple passages together, which is why we’re also working with 1 Thesallonians today. And it’s there I’d like to start — sort of. 

Reading this passage, a few phrases really jump out at me, in particular, “Children of light.” This connected to one of my passions that I haven’t yet had a chance to share here at Daniel’s Run —  reading fantasy novels!

How many of you are familiar with the Wheel of Time? It’s a 14-book long series and season 2 of a show adaptation just got released on Amazon Prime, though as often happens it’s a pale imitation of the books. I actually brought book 12 to give you an idea of what we’re talking about here. [Show book 12]. While it’s a loved series, brevity was not a gift of Robert Jordan’s, so much so that he actually died before he finished the series!

Anyhow — I’m sharing about this because one of the main ‘factions’ in this rich, Lord-of-the-Rings-esque world, are called the Children of the Light. They are a sort of international Knights Templar crossed with a Christian Nationalist group that tries to get various countries and individuals in the universe to “Proclaim for the Light” and join their authoritarian religious army that opposes all use of magic, even wonderful magic like healing. The Children of the Light are very much not the good guys — they are just another group vying for power via the weapons of the world, and known throughout the story for their hypocrisy, particularly their use of torture — all in “service of the light.”

Another intriguing “theological” element of The Wheel of Time are who Jordan calls “Darkfriends” — people who, against the prevailing theological desire in the world to serve good, choose to serve chaos in service of personal ambition or fame.

However — I’ve always found the idea of servants of the devil as one of the most unrealistic aspects of The Wheel of Time. Completely evil characters, willing to serve chaos and deceit rather than truth, may make useful stooges in creative writing — but they do a dis-service to our understanding of how evil typically acts in our world today.

True — there are clearly some people throughout history and maybe in our lives who do consciously choose to serve evil — but I believe these people are vastly outnumbered by people who believe they are serving a greater good while perpetuating evil. 1 Thessalonians and Matthew’s parable make this point on two fronts.

First, Jesus clearly teaches that some judgment is due to those who try to follow him but who fail to invest fully, only taking part of the good news, perhaps hoarding it for themselves, and failing to invest and live into God’s kingdom.

Second, scripture reminds us that world history’s greatest villains don’t capture people to their message by proclaiming a message of evil — rather, they proclaim visions of light and life that many fail to discern are actually guises for destruction and death.  2 Corinthians 11:14 reminds us that “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” Most people failing to serve the Creator God of Truth and Life in one way or another still believe they are serving the good. 

There is plenty of brokenness to go around in the world today, both near at hand, in the Middle East, and elsewhere — and as people of peace we should strive to always remember the good, if misguided, hearts of people even as they go astray — this is part of what it means to love our enemies. I find it both comforting and challenging to know that most people have good hearts and want to do good; but as the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

So, what does Jesus have to say about any of this? How can we be real Children of the Light, not in the Christian Nationalist-ish Fantasy novel version, but as followers of Jesus here and today, when visions of what health look like are so much in flux? How can we be good servants of the light and life? 

 

Both these passages point us towards conscious thankfulness and using our skills for good as being the basis for our service of God. When we begin with keeping awake and looking around for God at work, we will find God, and God in others, already at work building up the kingdom — and God has given all of us gifts to participate in this work of reconciliation.

So, today, we’ll take another look at this parable and God’s gifts to us; then, we’ll connect this message to the passage from 1 Thessalonians and do some commentary there on keeping awake; finally, we’ll close with some thoughts on how prayer and thankfulness is central to applying our gifts and connecting to our own ‘talents.’

 

Let’s start with the basics of the parable:

First — I think we need to try and sort out our units a bit. 

I alluded to this in my sermon on the unforgiving servant, but a talent is a heck of a lot of money. In that parable, the unforgiving servant is forgiven his debt of ten thousand talents by the king, but then refuses to forgive the 100 denari that a fellow slave owes him. A denarius was an average laboror’s wages for a day; so, this was actually some amount of money at nearly a quarter-year’s wages; say, 10,000 dollars. But — it totally pales in comparison to 10,000 talents, since one talent was an equivalent of 6,000 denari — so a talent is about 20 year’s wages. An approximate translation of a talent in our modern parlance of one talent could be “a million dollars.” With some basic math, then, the first servant was forgiven a debt of about 10 billion dollars.

It boggles the mind — or, makes Jesus’s point — to think of someone who has just been forgiven a 10 billion-dollar debt being unwilling to forgive the $10,000 his friend owes him. Wow! 

Anyhow — this is not the parable I’m preaching on today! Let’s take this back to the parable of the talents. This parable could be re-told in a modern setting as follows: the owner of a company is going away, but before she leaves she gives different division managers various amounts of money to use as they please for the good of the business. One division manager gets $10 million dollars, one $5 million, and one $1 million. With this context, would we be surprised at all that God — better than a boss or company owner, but at least a boss in this scenario — would reward some for their stewardship, and punish, fairly severely, a manager who promised to work for the good of the business and won a big contract, but due to failure of imagination simply sat on a million dollar for years and years rather than investing it in any way? 

Now, I’m still new enough here that I won’t preach too directly about money! But, obviously this parable should impact our desire to manage our money well. It strikes me that Pastor Tig’s great sermon last week on the parable of the 10 bridesmaids — which is actually the parable right before this one in Matthew — very much hinges on stewardship as well. 

Financial stewardship isn’t just about getting rich — it’s about knowing, tracking, and celebrating what God has given us, so that we know how much we can give and support others. Stewardship directly ties into three of the five lamps that we as Christians seek to keep burning that Pastor Tig highlighted last week — flourishing, generosity, and compassion can all have financial elements.

Now, I am quite passionate about the Christian-Anabaptist-Mennonite emphasis on living simply, and some other time I’ll happily preach on that, but to keep it extremely simple, I think that living simply is a part of stewardship: making sure that we’re investing our lives and finances that God has given us not just in pleasing or distracting ourselves or in our families, but rather investing in the kingdom.

Of course, this parable is about a lot more than just money; it’s about how we live our lives and how we understand all the gifts that God has given us. 

Now, it’s a fun fact that the talent, an ancient near-eastern unit of money has come, over the millenia, to mean our word for natural ability! That’s right — our English word talent actually comes from this story, which creates a wonderful parallel to get at Jesus’s meaning — that we don’t just invest and steward our money, but also the skills God has given us, for the building up of others. 

Everyone has gifts and talents that can be used for God’s ministry of reconciliation — even in the midst of our ongoing weakness and brokenness. There is nary a skill-set in the world that can’t be used for building people up, and we know God absolutely delights in picking the overlooked to be his instruments of peace in the world.

Paul puts it beautifully in first Timothy 1:15:

“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst, but for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.”

This is the stewardship God wants us to tap into — and, I believe, is what the third, unfaithful servant missed: that God has given him a huge gift that he needs to faithfully steward. We who follow Jesus have also received this ultimate gift of grace, and now we are called to keep investing it. We don’t need to forget our sinfulness or have everything perfectly together; rather, we need to remember that God is choosing us anyways to invest in love and hope now

A story to illustrate this point — A few weeks ago I was having lunch with another pastor in Virginia Conference, and we got to swapping stories about how we were called into ministry. I actually quoted this parable, saying that part of what’s led me to ministry is being conscious of my talents, for music and preaching and whatnot, and I want to give back to the kingdom. To whom much is given, much is expected — right?

I was pretty surprised when he kind of laughed at me — and said, sure, those are gifts God has given you; but don’t forget, Caleb, that the real gift you’ve been given and are expected to invest in is the love and grace and forgiveness of God.

May we always remember that our main gift from God is the gift of grace to live another day. We invest our earthly talents too, but we must not forget this main gift of grace.

 

Okay — with a better grasp on this parable, let’s turn for a minute to the 1 Thessalonians passage.

I think what Paul is saying here is that because we don’t know when Jesus will come back we should always be seeking to stay awake to the possibility that our lives and reality could change at any moment. Rather than living with the expectation that everything around us is stable and we can thus just slack off and have a good time, we should keep awake to how God is sustaining us now and to how God is moving in the world. We need to be thankful and present in the moment. 

Paul is saying: be ready for anything at any time — don’t live just for the moment, don’t seek out only distraction or pleasure from life: instead, live knowing that our time on earth could be cut short. Keep awake to God’s work in the world, and do your best to be a part of it.

This can still be a bit theoretical. What does this mean? What are some real things we can do?

Luckily, Paul goes directly on to share some really tangible suggestions: “​​Be at peace among yourselves. We urge you, brothers and sisters, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak — and be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.”

I want to land on this last point — I think by suggesting that we ‘test everything and hold fast to what is good and abstain from what is evil’ Paul is encouraging us to also be good stewards of ideas — to do discernment together, assessing what we hold on to that leads to life and what we distance ourselves from. One way I’ve heard this put is “Auditing everything for the Lordship of Jesus,” the crucified and resurrected Messiah.

But we don’t go out in the world, or into discernment, with no guidance, or no protection — We go into discernment protecting our hearts with a breastplate of faith and love, and we protect our minds via a helmet: the hope of salvation. 

Paul encourages us to begin and end our thinking processes with hope for a better future — hope for salvation, God’s intervention for us and for others. When we do this, we’re going to be agents of hope and reconciliation in the world.

Similarly, we need to always be protecting our hearts with faith and love — faith that we are not alone in the work, that God has already called many others for us to work beside — and love, so that our hearts continue to burn with the compassion that God feels for everyone in need. 

 

Another core part of keeping awake and being good stewards that Paul highlights here is prayer. Prayers of gratitude are one of the key ways we can keep awake to the gifts that God has given us, enabling us to be good stewards.

With Thanksgiving coming up this week, I want to think about thanksgiving as a spiritual discipline. 

Many of you are probably familiar with the idea of gratitude journals; these are now one of the most well-loved therapy techniques in our country — it’s well documented that taking time at the beginning and end of the day to note things we’re thankful for improves our moods and health! How much more, as Christians, should our frequent prayers of thanksgiving also connect us to how God is investing in us. If you take one thing away from this sermon, may it be that we can never pray too many prayers of thanksgiving, which improve our lives in many ways. 

Of course, we don’t need to be thankful all the time, to the extent that we don’t lament — lament and thankfulness are both parts of our Christian discipline of prayer, we don’t need to read far in the Psalms to see this — but if we lose touch with the gifts of grace God has given to us, we run the risk of burying our talents and our lives, rather than giving as much of ourselves as possible to Jesus’ kingdom of abundant life. Being thankful is part of recognizing the way God is keeping our lamps lit.

I came across a wonderful thought on prayer by well-known Christian author, Philip Yancey, this past week, from his book Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference? He says, “I [have] become more convinced than ever that God finds ways to communicate to those who truly seek God, especially when we lower the volume of the surrounding static [through prayer].” 

Yancey is saying here that one of the functions of prayer is quieting the static in our lives so that we come to see God at work in ways we would otherwise miss — by thanking God for the gifts around us, we become even more likely to notice those blessings: a fortuitous cycle that leads us closer and closer to God, participating more and more fully with God and the church’s ministry of healing, hope, and reconciliation.

Now, at this point, you may be wondering — how can I get in better touch with the gifts God has given me? I know God has created and saved me by grace, but God isn’t actively looking for me to do ministry, is he?

One of my co-workers at Virginia Conference, Duane Beck, who pastored many years in North Carolina and is just a wise, calm presence that I really appreciate, has an answer for this question, and it centers on an approach of thankfulness. Whenever given the chance, be it individually with believers or with churches and pastors, he follows a basic, prayerful ‘appreciative inquiry’ structure to help people see where God is at work.

Duane shared the following in a recent reflection: “I have found that interviewing individuals…about their daily lives [is] one of the best ways to encourage people to pursue their passion and recognize their God-given purpose. The interviews [are] centered around a basic outline: Describe your work — what energizes you? what gives you life? Where do you see the Spirit bubbling up?”

Whether it’s through our employment, though caregiving, or just through our friendships, we can all use our gifts for God — and for this we can give thanks. We should start with recognizing those places of life where God is already at work in us. What Seeds has God already planted in us? What talents has God given us? Have we thanked God for these talents, and are we praying and acting that they may grow to bless others? Can we keep awake, via encouraging and building one another up, to the seeds that God has planted around us? 

 

I want to close with sharing a bit about the song we’ll do as our sermon response — Seeds.

I love this song for a lot of reasons. It’s simple and catchy — I’ve been singing it non-stop all week — and it reminds us that God has already planted seeds of hope and life all around us and in us. 

Seth Crissman and Greg Yoder, who wrote this song, are examples to me of investing in seeds of hope and faith in surprising ways. They have been investing their gifts for a long time — as musicians and Dads, they’ve had to balance family responsibilities with using their gifts of music for the broader community. Via their band based in Harrisonburg, The Walking Roots, they’ve been writing and sharing music about their faith for more than a decade. During the pandemic, they sensed a need to support families in faith formation and began a new project — The Soil and Seed Project — to write songs and liturgies for children and families, so that faith can grow in musical and family settings, not just at church.

I see Seth and Greg’s trust and perseverance that God will use their gifts all over this song — and today, songs from The Soil and Seed are used in more than 20 denominations across 30 states and 90 countries. Seth and Greg were able to, this year, quit their day jobs and move full-time into this ministry of writing music supporting faith formation. They are living their talents for God. 

So, as we sing this song, may we remember that God has already given each of us talents — talents worth millions — to invest in the good of all. God is the planter; God has planted seeds in our hearts and bones; and it is God’s love that will make these seeds grow as we recognize and partner with God in the faithful stewardship of our gifts. 

This week, may we be ever more thankful and ever more aware of God moving in and through and around us — and may we be good stewards of the blessings God has entrusted to us, investing our lives in God’s kingdom. May it be so.